Don't ask me why, but lately I have been thinking about catfish.
That's right, catfish — those whiskered denizens of a lot of our local lakes and rivers. I have written about catfish before, but I felt it was time for another little heart-to-heart talk about these misunderstood and tasty fish.
So named because of their protruding barbels that resemble whiskers (like a cat), catfish are found in the waters of every continent except Antarctica. What self-respecting catfish would want to live in Antarctica anyway? Fish scientists, or more properly, ichthyologists (I often wonder how long those guys and girls go to school before they learn to spell ichthyologist) tell us there are more than 3,000 species of catfish in the world.
Besides their trademark whiskers, catfish usually have a large, bony head and a protruding dorsal fin with a pointed ray or bone that can be very painful if handled incorrectly. The two front dorsal fins often have a similar pointed bone and must be handled carefully.
The size of catfish is always good for some entertaining although usually very misinformed chatter at the barbershop and the bait store. Fishermen love to pass along stories of monster catfish at the base of any large impoundment, with catfish "bigger than the scuba divers" that saw them or some such.
Ever talk to one of these divers? Ever see one of these fish caught locally? No, neither have I.
I'll try to clear some of this monster catfish lore, which I know will be to no avail (much like trying to tell people in the South they did not see a mountain lion in their backyard). On the wonderful internet, where anything is possible and the truth never gets in the way, you will often see pictures of someone with a gigantic catfish around, say, 300 pounds and seven or eight feet long. According to the caption, it was caught at any lake or river in your area. Look closely at these pictures, and it is usually a Wels catfish, which are found over much of Europe. You know, Europe — across the Atlantic, not in your state or any part of the United States, for that matter.
Catfish aficionados have long known their prey can be taken on a wide variety of baits. Many trend toward "the more it stinks, the better it is" mode. Chicken and beef liver, various animal parts, cut bait (usually fish) and really any organic material with a lot of aroma are all good candidates for bait. Commercially made stink baits have taken this to a new level. Just check out the fishing section at Wally World for an idea of all the catfish stink baits that are out there.
In truth, do you need all of the specially made catfish gear and bait to catch fish? No, but some of it may be fun to try. However, your medium-action bass rods and some live bait may be all you need to have catfish filets sizzling at your house this week.
OK, I know I wandered a little there, but if you are fishing in most of the good old U.S. of A., you will be concerned with mainly three species of catfish: the channel cat, the blue cat and the flathead.
The channel cat is the smallest of the three but the most plentiful, which makes it the most popular target in the group. Known to be in swift flowing rivers, it may also be found in lakes. Live minnows, shrimp, crayfish, nightcrawlers and cut bait may all hook channels, which have a bluish-gray tinge with some dark specks and a deeply forked tail.
The blue cat resembles the channel but grows much larger. Some nudging 150 pounds have been caught, and larger ones may be on the way. So let's go back to where I told you to use your bass rods. Probably not a good idea if you are going to target large blue cats! Something in the salt-water range would be more appropriate. And anything from stink bait to live bait will bring them in.
The flathead is the last of the species on your list. Also called mudcat, yellow or shovelhead, this catfish is usually a mottled brown with some yellowish color on the sides and a white belly. Like the blue cat, this guy can get some size on him (or her) — the current world record is more than 123 pounds. So again, I would not be using any ultra-light gear for flatheads. They are known for favoring live bait, usually fish, and in many areas what you refer to as bream or bluegill is a favorite.
Of course, the best part of catching catfish may be the eating part. Catfish are fairly easy to filet, and rolled in your favorite seasoned flour and fried to a golden brown, I think they are about the tastiest fish that swims.
Don't forget the hush puppies and cole slaw.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.